Money on either side of the poverty line

Source: Carlos Aires, 'Disaster'
Source: Carlos Aires, ‘Disaster’

Money on either side of the poverty line

For the past couple of weeks I have been tutoring every day. I am in fact just now sitting on the train back from the far north of London, where one of ‘my families’[1] lives. Resides is perhaps more precise. Mum, dad and the daughters inhabit a mansion: nine bedrooms, a pool-house, a separate garden apartment for staff, five cars (for two people with driving licenses) and a dog. They are a lovely family as far as I can tell – just very rich. The money comes from hard work in the marketing industry; for decades, Daddy has put up with number-filled excel sheets, hour-long telephone conferences, and endless client meetings discussing how to best sell needless and nonsensical inventions. Now life is a bit more relaxed: at 54, he founded his own firm, and since then working days have become shorter, family life a little higher up the agenda.

Over the past year, I have got to know the family quite well, tutoring two of their four daughters. It wasn’t the sometimes humble, often snotty behaviour of the children, but that of their mother that really made me think recently. Like all mums, this one was always concerned about her kids. She held everything together, both in her calendar and in her strict hands. Her life revolved around managing graduation balls, rowing events and the army of tutors, household helpers and gardeners. Underneath the luxury – which in itself was often quite plain, plentiful but not garishly opulent – I observed something very curious: how somebody who didn’t have to worry about money actually dealt with it, with cash.

Recently, the mother and I decided to alter the way we handled the payment for my tutoring. While the money was originally transferred to and from an agency – very conveniently for both sides – some hiccups with their system made us change the arrangement. It was suddenly bare cash, rather than some numbers on the screen, that would have to swap hands, literally. Every time the mother paid me she did so with disgust. Whenever I saw her coming towards me holding the pack of notes in her hand, I could sense her unease.

In no way was she worried about wasting the money – tutoring was seen as a necessity, just another small brick in the wall of securitisation to help the daughters live an easy life. The disgust came from the cash itself. She didn’t like where it might have been: ‘It is dirty’, she kept saying, ‘you just washed your hands. Do you want me to put it in your wallet directly?’ Many people have touched these same notes before, left their marks on them. Some notes do indeed feel dirty; they feel used, old and exhausted, almost dead. The way the mother looked at the notes evoked exactly these feelings in me – but I stopped myself: how could I think of money as something dead, something horrible and polluting, if we are all striving endlessly to get more and more of it? Wasn’t I actually only here for the money that kept me alive (rather than dead)? Is that part of the paradox of money?


The other side of the poverty line

On the other side of the poverty line, I was sitting on the street with Martin last Saturday. And he just couldn’t stop playing: a one-pound coin constantly flew from one hand to the other. In fluid movements, Martin entertained the cash; he flipped, dropped, rolled, threw it from one side to the other and couldn’t take his eyes from it even while talking. I have known Martin for three years now and he hasn’t changed his way of life as far as I’ve observed from when I first met him. Every day at 5pm he starts work. He doesn’t do ordinary work though: Martin begs for a living. I always meet him standing right next to the entrance of Shoreditch High Street Station. He is quiet and doesn’t address people. Often only the money speaks for him as it jingles in his hands.

I have observed him – and others – polishing pieces, feeling them, rubbing them against their palm, looking at them very closely, almost examining them. Money seemed to have an exhilarating quality for Martin – it makes him wonder. He doesn’t think about the history of the money as such, but he thinks about the history of people who have touched it before him. A pound coin means a lot for Martin; it is roughly a twelfth of his daily income.

Most of the money Martin makes is given to him. It often comes from people Martin only sees once in a lifetime, but very frequently people give to Martin regularly. Martin knows the stories of people that helped him out; he knows their names, jobs and sometimes even their families. The money they give to him means something to Martin that goes beyond the material gift; it takes Martin into other people’s lives through its connection to talking, sitting down and spending time together.

How Martin deals with money, with cash, made me curious when I first noticed it. I was and still am amazed by what he does with it. For me – as for many other people – money is negligible in its material form, almost a nuisance (sometimes even too dirty to actually touch). It is in my wallet and, if not, there are always cards. For Martin, there is no way around cash. He doesn’t have a bank account and depends on ‘real’ money – money that people give to him. It seems that this has also influenced his relationship with money. Evidently, money is simply and straightforwardly precious to Martin. It means ‘life’, another day on the street that means the world to him. Through money Martin takes part in something bigger – a society – but one that in many ways he is not connected to, as he doesn’t have a job, only a temporary home, and not many friends and acquaintances. He feels connected partly through the physical coin in his hand, exactly the history that the concerned mother found so daunting.


Dirty individualism

The luxury of money – as with many other luxuries – is defined by exclusivity. One can never really own cash; the notes and coins can never be only yours. They belong to the state (and it can recall them if it pleases) and to the people of the country. There’s something inherently collective about coins and notes, which let us not forget accounts for less than 3% of all the money, real and electronic, in the UK. But a credit card, on the other hand, is yours; it has your name on it, it is only employed by you, and you don’t have to part with it to use it. Cash can never be any of these things. It can do something else, however: fiat currency is a sign of community. It connects a chain of people through time. It goes beyond the individual, and it bears the marks and traces (of coffee, felt-tip, cocaine…) of the people who have used it. Cash most probably is dirty – but is ‘dirty’ always bad?

The people I encounter on the street are connected to an –admittedly romantic – community through their intimate relation to money, their genuine care for it. The mother of the children I tutor doesn’t have this connection. Like her mansion, she prefers the safety ring of an intermediary bank, an electronically-manipulated piece of plastic. Credit cards are just another sign of what has actually turned the ‘real’ into the ‘dirty’: individualism.


[1] The names and circumstances of the people I talk about in this essay are made-up. I modelled the people on people I met in real life but changed important details – such as names, place of living, occupation etc – to make them completely anonymous and protect my informants.


Johannes Lenhard is currently a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at King’s College, Cambridge. His research is focused on the intersection of alternative economics, social theory and the ethnographic study of homelessness and mental health. He tweets under @acjf37.




The column: Flummox

Flummox, from the mid C19th flummock: to bring to confusion; to ‘do for’, cause to fail; to confound, bewilder, nonplus… The world is made of stuff and non-sense. Flummox is about being caught amongst things, and about ways between things, and about our strange encounters with the ever bewildering lives and narratives of stuff, things, the nonhuman.

Polly Dickson curates a column (to appear every other week) on Flummox. We open the column with this first piece written by Johannes Lenhard and his experience of people being caught between forms of money.

Johannes Lenhard is currently a post doctoral researcher at the Max Cam Center for the Study of Ethics, the Economy and Social Change at the University of Cambridge and a College Research Associate at King’s College, Cambridge. His work is focused on the intersection of alternative economics, social theory and the ethnographic study of homelessness and mental health. His new project is discovering the ethics of venture capital investing and is the current editor-in-chief of KR.